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School closing in Tennessee reveals risks, challenges of state takeover

A selling point for Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District was a similar state-run program in Tennessee. OSD proponents in Georgia sold Tennessee’s Achievement School District as a success story, despite reports the ASD was struggling.

State takeover did not produce a leap in academic performance. Nor were parents thrilled in every case to have the state of Tennessee run their schools. The 4-year-old ASD operates 33 schools in Memphis and Nashville, some directly and some through contracts with charter school networks.

Chalkbeat Tennessee is now reporting the first closing of an ASD school, Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary in north Memphis. Operated by Gestalt Community Schools, a local charter management company, Klondike suffered low enrollment.  (Gestalt is pulling out of a second ASD school, but another operator may step in.)

Low enrollment also led the KIPP charter school network to announce two weeks ago it would vacate another ASD school, the Memphis University Middle School.

In a statement, KIPP said, “Due in large part to its remote location in Southwest Memphis, KIPP Memphis University Middle has been under enrolled since it opened in the summer of 2014. Because of this historic low student enrollment, the board determined the school was not financially viable on public dollars in the long run.” KIPP operates other schools in Memphis and intends to offer students seats there.

The challenges facing the ASD should have given Deal and the GOP leadership pause. Voters apparently were more skeptical as they overwhelmingly rejected amending the Georgia constitution to allow the governor to seize control of schools deemed failing by state tests.

Here is a short excerpt from Chalkbeat but look at the full story:

 No one within the Achievement School District has stepped up to take over a school that lost its charter management — not even the network directly run by the turnaround district.

This means that Klondike Preparatory Academy Elementary will likely close this year. The announcement from ASD officials on Thursday sets the ASD up for its first-ever closure — the latest in a string of bad news that hints at deep troubles for the state-run district.

Gestalt Community Schools, a local charter operator, said in October that it would pull out of Klondike Elementary and Humes Preparatory Academy Middle schools because it was struggling to enroll enough students to sustain operations. Two operators expressed initial interest in taking over at Humes and one appears likely to apply formally to run that school. But none are willing to run Klondike — including the district’s own operator, Achievement Schools.

I recently wrote about a Vanderbilt study raising questions about the efficacy of the ASD. The study found students who remained in an Innovation Zone or iZone created by the county school district outperformed students in the ASD schools. I asked study author Gary Henry, who used to evaluate HOPE and pre-k while at Georgia State University, why the ASD was underperforming.

I wanted to share his response again as it reflects the risks in state takeover:

It is probably a complex and nuanced story. A big part of the picture is having operators adjust to running neighborhood schools rather than schools of choice. Meeting the needs of students with disabilities was challenging. Also, both student and teacher mobility played a role. Also, providing the right balance of structure and autonomy for teachers has been challenging. Also, the operators understood that the Common Core tests were going to be implemented in Tennessee in the first and second years of operation, but implementation was delayed and the curricula didn’t match the achievement tests. We have heard lots of these potential issues but have not yet done tested the explanations empirically.  We hope to do that this spring."

I also want to share part of the November column written for AJC Get Schooled by the superintendent of the Achievement School District in response to a critical ASD column by Nashville school board members.

ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson wrote:

Yes, the work to turnaround the state’s lowest-performing Priority schools is hard. Yes, it is charting new ground. And yes, creating new meaningful, sustainable ways for students and the adults who love them to co-create great schools in every neighborhood after decades of being sidelined is decidedly messy.

The important thing, however, is that — for the first time in decades — these communities are getting an infusion of energy, of innovation, of resources, of expertise, and of undivided attention and intervention for their schools and their children.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.